It is not my job to make friends with a scared dog. It is my job to make sure this dog feels as safe as possible. It is my job to make sure the owners know that their number one job in helping their dog is to make sure the dog feels safe. And the dog very rarely feels safe if it is close to someone it fears. It is my job to teach the owners how to keep the dog safe, and then to train alternative behaviors, change emotions, use adjunctive tools as needed.
It is easy to imagine that if I show this dog that I am a nice person who gives out cookies, the dog will start to feel safer with people and make positive associations, and so its aggression will diminish. Actually, this strategy fails more often than it works. If I went to see a client and felt I’d done my bit because the dog liked me, took cookies from me, and did a sit for me, even though it bit the last person who gave it a cookie, I have failed my client. I have failed the dog. The dog is not learning what it needs to learn. The owners are not learning what they need to learn.
Unfortunately, there’s a huge amount of information online, as well as coming from other trainers (who do not focus on behavior), inadvertently telling them just the opposite. That they should have people make friends with the dog. Feed the dog. Or that they must force the dog to deal with it, so they throw the dog in the deep end over and over, with more and more spectacular failures. An awful lot of my clients’ dogs are now two strikes down and have spent years learning to be more scared and more defensive and less interested in what their owners have to say, all because of bad information that often came from other trainers. Or the internet. Or TV.
Unfortunately, these types of problems can be, and often are, made worse by well meaning skill trainers. Skill trainers is a group term I use to describe people who are teaching skills: agility, obedience, puppy class, therapy, nose work. I know plenty of skill trainers who can teach things I am not necessarily so good at. My recent experience instructing someone on how to teach heeling didn’t actually go so well, but she did very well once she got into a real obedience class with an experienced obedience instructor. It goes the other way, too. Most obedience instructors don’t really know how to handle dogs whose behavior is being affected by fear, frustration, anger. Most skill trainers will try to make friends with a scared dog, thinking they are helping. Very likely, they are not… quite likely, they are actually doing damage. Of course, they don’t know this, because of that frustrating problem: we don’t know what we don’t know!
I would like to see skill trainers, the hardworking group who comprise the great bulk of dog trainers, learning more systematically about handling fearful, reactive or aggressive dogs in classes. And learning when to refer. And knowing to whom they will refer. They will give better service if they do not try to do something they don’t know how to do. It’s tough. Owners ask for help. They don’t know they are asking the wrong person. The trainer has superior knowledge and should be the one who recognizes when the question is not for her to answer. If a dog is biting or snapping… refer! If the dog’s fear or anxiety is making it hard for him to function in class… refer! If you think a dog needs treats from strangers to learn to like them better… refer, please! You are doing that dog and its owners a favor by doing the right thing. They can get the help they need. (Need I add that it’s almost always best to get these dogs out of group classes anyway, since they are often disruptive and take up disproportionate time and energy? May be dangerous to the other dogs or handlers? This is not what you’re supposed to be doing. Refer so you can go back to what you’re getting paid for.)